The Secret Under 30 Reel

When you go in for a job interview, you should already be familiar with the agency’s work. You know what Super Bowl spots they’ve produced, what innovations they’ve been making in social media, what campaigns have put them on the map.

But when you’re interviewing, ask this question:

“What kind of work have your creatives under 30 been producing?”

The agency probably doesn’t have an official under 30 reel. But you should still ask the question.

Because 45-year-old seasoned creatives are usually the ones who get the plum assignments. They produce the TV spots that run during the Oscars and the NCAA Championship games. They do the groundbreaking social work. They’re the ones who get written up in Adweek the most often.

Part of that is because they have a ton of experience that helps them work better and faster. Part of that is because they’ve paid their dues at the agency and in the industry.

 

But ask an agency, “Can I see some of the work your under 30 creatives have produced?” and you’ll get an idea of the kind of opportunities that particular agency has in store for you.

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First Impressions

Ads have to work fast. Almost light speed.

They have to be simultaneously clear and intriguing.

If they’re muddled, irrelevant, or boring, no one will pay attention.

This is equally true for ads in student portfolios.

Just 30 seconds before writing this post, I was looking at a student’s book online. The first four examples were case studies that looked more like brochures than ads. They weren’t ads. They were explanations of executions.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have time to sit and read paragraph after paragraph designed to help me better understand the problem, the target audience, what they currently think, what they should think. That’s a creative brief. And I don’t have time to read your creative brief.

I have time to read a few quick headlines that are thoughtful, engaging, clever, provoking, interesting, and clear.

I want to see your creative.

I don’t have time to read your explanations.

“But print is dead,” you say. “Digital solutions need more explanation. They need to be set up.”

Fine. Then set them up. Quickly. And clearly. Then get out of the way, and let the work speak for itself.

And never discount a quick, well-written headline. It’s the easiest way of showing me you can think. If you can write a great piece of copy, I’m willing to bet you can create any kind of compelling content a client needs you to.

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This is what reading paragraphs of set-up copy feels like.

Using Other People’s Ads to Set Up Your Ideas

When creatives present their ideas – either to clients or internally – we sometimes show a video clip as a point of reference. It might be to establish a mood, a look, a technique, anything.

But here’s my warning:

Don’t ever use someone else’s ad to set up your idea.

Think about it. Do you really want to set up your idea by showing a really awesome Nike ad? Or a Jeep spot? Or an Apple commercial?

Whether you mean to or not, you’re basically saying, “Our idea isn’t 100% original. But here’s a really cool ad we wish we’d done and want to rip off.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re presenting ideas for butter and you’re using a car commercial as a reference. It’s still telegraphs “not fresh” to the entire room. It says, “We want to be at least as good as this ad…but no better.”

Go ahead and use a documentary segment to establish a tone. Use a YouTube video to give a sense of energy. A film clip to help explain a technique. Do whatever you can to help the people in the room catch a vision of your idea.

But no matter how strong the temptation, don’t use someone else’s ad to show what you want your ad to be like.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Read whatever you can get your hands on. It’ll make you a better creative, whether you’re a writer, art director, designer, UX guru, creative technologist, whatever. But don’t limit yourself to “ad books.” Learn to communicate in ways that aren’t covered in the Advertising sub-shelves of the Business section at Barnes & Noble.

Pick up a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. A beautiful and inspiring piece. I don’t want to call it a how-to. But it will help you how-to: communicate, question, wonder, ponder, reconsider, and get to work.

 

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Your Choice

When you have a brilliant idea and your client kills it, you have two choices:

  1. Come back with something even better.
  2. Give them what they’re expecting and just move on.

If you choose 1, and your client kills that idea, you have two choices:

  1. Come back with something even better.
  2. Give them what they’re expecting and just move on.

If you choose 1 again, and once more, your client kills that idea, you’re still left with two choices:

  1. Come back with something even better.
  2. Give them what they’re expecting and just move on.

The difference between great creatives and mediocre creatives is the ability to choose 1 again and again.

And I’d argue that more often than not, it’s also the difference between happy creatives and unhappy creatives.

The Egg Assignment

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This is one of the assignments I like to give to my copywriting students.

You’ve probably seen one of these before. It’s an egg.

I want you to write something on an egg that makes me want to eat it.

Take any angle you want.

Go to the store and buy an egg and write the thing on it and bring it to class. You might want to use a hard‐boiled egg.

These are due in Monday’s class. I will give you a pass/fail grade on it. If you fail, you can try again in any other class. If you pass, you can be finished, or you can try to come up with a better egg. Or you can give your idea to a struggling classmate.

You get to keep your eggs.

At the start of class, I would have the students, one at a time, set their eggs in the middle of the table. I would read whatever was on the egg. I would judge the egg based on one simple factor: did I want to eat that egg? I wouldn’t think about it very much.

Some eggs were very clever. Some tried to be funny. Some gave a functional benefit—protein or healthy snack.

Sometimes the message made a difference. I might feel like I could use a healthy snack. Sometimes I would chuckle but not want to eat the egg. Sometimes I would pick the first egg simply because I was hungry. Sometimes I would pick no eggs because I wasn’t hungry.

It was frustrating for the students, because it was like their creative idea only sometimes made a difference in whether or not they passed or failed that day. Which was exactly the point.

There are dozens of factors that go into whether or not a consumer buys the product you’re trying to sell. Your creative idea is usually pretty low on the list. Way below whether or not the consumer happens to be hungry at that moment. So remember that. You have to be relevant. You have to be persuasive. You also have to be lucky.

How can I build my portfolio when my client won’t buy good work?

Early in your career, you should be chasing opportunity. Go where you can produce your best work. A lot of it. Cycle great work into your portfolio and expunge the crap—that’s your simple goal. And early in your career, it’s critical.

Thus, one of the most frustrating (and dangerous) situations to find yourself in is to a client that refuses, for whatever reason, to buy good work (and here let’s define “good work” as work you’d want in your portfolio).

So what do you do?

First of all, don’t put work in your portfolio just because it’s “real” (i.e. just because the client bought and ran it). If it’s not better than your student spec work, it shouldn’t go in your book, period. You get no points for “real” bad work.

What about my good ideas that were pitched to and killed by the client? Can I put those on my site? The specifics of the situation, the agency-client relationship and legalities of contracts, etc. all can determine the right answer to that question. Some would say yes, just password protect it. Some would say ask your creative director. Some would say just do it and ask forgiveness if needed. I’m going to save that tangent for another time.

What does that leave you with? You still have some options. Here are four that have worked for me in the past:

1) Do work on the side.

Find a client that you can do good work for. Go outside the agency if you need to (just avoid any direct conflicts with your agency clients ). You have a friend who owns a bar? See if you can throw some work her way. Or the local aquarium. Or a startup that you happen to like. It doesn’t have to be a Fortune 500 company. Go to a conference and introduce yourself to some people. Be open about what you’re trying to do. You’re looking to do great work that you can put in your portfolio. Would they be open to letting you take a crack at a project for them?

When I was in San Francisco, you couldn’t throw a smartphone without hitting someone who knew someone involved in a startup. A group of people at my agency found a wine startup that ended up being a dream project. Although these guys were never an official agency client, the agency supported the work (they wanted to see us do cool side projects too).

 

Obviously, if the person knows and trusts you, you’re more likely to get a yes. But I’ve found that if you’re honest about your intentions, people are happy to let you pitch some ideas to them. They’re not obligated to buy or run the work. Whether or not you do the work for pay is another can of worms I won’t get into here, but remember that your main reason for doing this work is the work, not the money. And if you are willing to do it for no pay…

 

2) Find a pro bono client.

When I take on a project, I want at least one of these:

  • Great creative.
  • Get paid.
  • Work with friends/have fun.
  • Good cause.

Ideally I get all four. I usually have to settle for three, sometimes two. If none of those boxes are checked, I’m-a-gonna pass. For pro bono, you eliminate #2. So find a cause you believe in. Try to involve people who will make it fun. And be clear with the client that you want to have good work in the end, not just brochures. You might do a brochure, but only if you can also do something you’ll be proud to put in your book.

I worked for a music education pro-bono client for years. I’d say we had #3 and #4, often #1. But we also had something else, which was an opportunity to experiment and learn. We shot a number of documentary pieces that put my partner and me behind the camera, working the boom, editing and building stories out of interviews and b-roll. It was something we didn’t have much experience with when we started, but after six mini-docs, we’d actually learned a few things. And that’s not nothing.

And years ago Greg had an idea for the National Parks, so he reached out to them to see if he could do some free work. That campaign ended up in Communication Arts.

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3) Solve a real-world problem.

Forget clients altogether. Just pick something that sucks and solve it. My partner and I once had a planner who would call and talk forever. We were bullshitting one day and had the idea of an app that lets you select from a library of sound effects to give you excuses for ending the call. Like knock at the door, pre-flight announcement, baby crying, etc. Neither of us had ever made an app before, so we decided to figure out how to do it. We called a developer we knew, worked out a deal around profit-splitting and got to work. Again, we learned a lot in the process and, in the end, we had something we could show off. We even sold a few of them.

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4) Do a passion or self-promo piece.

What do you love? Do a project around that passion. Love books? Redesign covers for your favorites. Create a children’s book. One former student used to build big type installations. Who cares if it’s not “ads?” It’s probably more interesting. Create a website for your grandmother. As a last resort, create something about you.

The point is, make something. And make it good. You have no client for something like this, so you have no excuse. If I’m looking at a portfolio from someone who has only a couple okay client pieces but a bunch of really interesting, well-crafted side projects, I figure that they’ll be able to do that for a client if given the opportunity.

But if I’m looking at a portfolio that has a couple of okay client pieces and a handful of excuses, no thanks. Clients may be a reason you can’t do great work on a particular brand—believe me, I’ve had my share. But bad clients are not a reason you can’t fill your portfolio with great work.